Autonomous Vehicle Implementation Predictions: Implications for Transport Planning
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
Recent announcements that manufactures will soon sell self-driving cars raise hopes that
autonomous vehicles will quickly solve many transportation problems. Advocates predict that
by 2030, such vehicles will be sufficiently convenient and affordable to displace most humanoperated
vehicles, providing many savings and benefits to users and society overall. However,
there are good reasons to be skeptical.
There is considerable uncertainty concerning autonomous vehicle benefits, costs, travel
impacts, deployment speed and consumer demand. Advocates claim that they will provide
huge social benefits, but many of their claims are speculative and exaggerated. Advocates often
ignore significant costs and risks, rebound effects (increased vehicle travel caused by faster
travel or reduced operating costs), and potential harms to people who do not to use the
technology. Benefits are sometimes double-counted, for example, by summing increased
safety, traffic speeds and facility savings, although these often involve trade-offs.
Most optimistic predictions are made by people with financial interests in the industry, based
on experience with other disruptive technologies such as personal computers, digital cameras
and smart phones. Vehicles typically last an order of magnitude longer, cost two orders of
magnitude more, impose greater external costs, and rely more on public infrastructure than
computers, cameras and telephones. As a result, vehicle technologies tend to take longer and
involve more regulation than most other innovations.
Operating a vehicle on public roads is complex due to the frequency of interactions with other,
often-unpredictable objects including vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists and animals. If they follow
previous vehicle technology deployment patterns, autonomous vehicles will initially be costly
and imperfect. During the 2020s and perhaps the 2030s, autonomous vehicles will be expensive
novelties, unable to operate in conditions such as heavy rain and snow, unpaved roads and
mixed urban traffic. They will be purchased by affluent non-drivers and people who frequently
drive long distance, but many travellers will not consider the extra costs justified. It will
probably be the late 2030s or 2040s before they become affordable to middle-income
households, and later before they are affordable to lower-income motorists.
During the 2020 and 2030s, self-driving taxi and “micro-transit” (van) services may become
available in many urban areas. They will be cheaper than human-operated taxis, costing about
$0.60-1.00 per mile for a self-driving taxi and 30-60¢ per mile for micro-transit, but offer low
service quality: to minimize cleaning and vandalism costs their interiors will be metal and
plastic, and occupants will be monitored by cameras, yet passengers will often find previous
occupants’ garbage, stains and odors. There will be no drivers to assist passengers and provide
security. Additional passengers will add pickup and drop-off delays, particularly in lower-density
areas. Because of these limitations, autonomous taxi and micro-transit will only be suitable for
a minority of total travel, mainly local urban trips. Once the novelty wears off, autonomous taxi
use will seem as tedious as commercial airline travel.